Rehearsing for the Medway Music Assocation Carol Festival in Rochester Cathedral. Image: MMA

5 December 2018

Any mention of 'music education' in the media these days is usually followed by the word 'decline'. But there are many parts of the country where music education is thriving, with outstanding and energetic provision for children from all backgrounds. One such area is Medway in South East England, where local children have been profiting from the presence and support of the Medway Music Association for over 75 years. NYCGB spoke to former National Youth Choir member and MMA Manager Jess Blease to find out more:

What is the Medway Music Association, what does it do, who does it do it for and where does it do it?

MMA provides and supports a wide range of high-quality music services, events and activities for schools and pupils in the Medway area, both in and beyond school, and helps them to access a wide range of progression opportunities. Since 2012, we have been working in partnership with Dynamics CIC, the Medway Music Hub, and we are very proud that our successful collaboration has contributed to Dynamics being ranked as one of the best performing Music Hubs nationally. This month, our major event is the MMA Carol Festival in Rochester Cathedral, involving 1,200 pupils from approaching 40 schools!

What is the history of the Carol Festival and how has it developed over the years?

The first MMA Carol Festival took place over 50 years ago and was actually just a single carol service in Rochester Cathedral with a small number of participating schools. Since then the festival has grown hugely to meet the demands of local schools wanting to get involved, and is now a three-day event during which the Cathedral is filled to capacity each day with 400 singing pupils and eager parents packing every available seat!

What does the Carol Festival mean to all the different types of people who take part in it?

The pupils range from ages 7 to 11 and they are usually initially overwhelmed by the magnitude of the Cathedral, but they quickly become very excited once they hear the booming tones of the organ and love having the opportunity to perform in such an amazing building. All school staff, from Teaching Assistants to Head Teachers, are always uplifted by the sound of so many enthusiastic young voices and it is not abnormal to see a teary face or two! We invite retired staff to come back each year as our guests, and they and our other VIPs, including our Mayor and Medway Councillors, all eagerly anticipate their invitations.

What do schools say about the festival?

We have incredible feedback from schools, including reports of benefits far beyond the musical. One academy told us that they had noticed how the festival had engaged and boosted the confidence of their shy children, and in particular of their children who study English as an additional language. The same academy told us that they had observed that these children's classroom progress had improved generally through their enthusiasm for choir, and also that they had observed improvements to the concentration and engagement of their pupils with special education needs.

Is there anything special in store for this year's Festival?

For the last two years, we have had the pleasure of welcoming NYCGB Associate Conductor Lucy Joy Morris to join us for the whole three-day festival and give her arms a workout by conducting our assembled hordes! It is always special to welcome her back, and we're delighted that we get to do that again this year. And we are also delighted to welcome Adam Hope for the first time: Adam works for NYCGB on their National Youth Boys' Choir courses among many other things, and will be our (very busy!) accompanist.

What plans does MMA have in store for 2019?

Our weekly Music Centre will be open throughout the year. This is a weekend music school offering a really wide range of group tuition and opportunities including ukelele classes, percussion band, choir, and Grade 1-5 Theory classes.

In terms of special events, the first big events are our Choral and Instrumental Festivals in March, which amount to a week of concerts given at Central Theatre by nearly 3,000 pupils. At Easter we have our non-residential holiday courses (open to anyone in Medway aged 7-18 who has been learning an instrument since September 2018), in June we have our Celebration Week at the Brook Theatre (another festival, this time including workshops) and then in Summer there's more non-residential holiday courses. We will also have a wide variety of concerts throughout the year to showcase the breadth of our Medway ensembles, including Medway Youth Choir, Medway Youth Orchestra, Medway Schools Wind Band, Rochester Cathedral Children’s Choir, Medway Intermediate Youth Orchestra, Medway Junior Youth Orchestra and Medway Schools Training Wind Band!

What opportunities does MMA have for young singers?

MMA offers a wide range of musical opportunities for young singers, from beginner right through to our Medway Youth Choir. All Medway primary schools and academies have the opportunity to take part in the festivals mentioned above, providing great opportunities to sing in choirs both in school and as part of a huge ensemble. Young singers can join choirs at our Music Centres, Holiday Courses and Rochester Cathedral Children’s Choir. Our Music Centres have opportunities for individual singing tuition as well group work and are just £5 per term to join, with bursaries for those who need them. We have recently launched a Year 7 singing project to get more students singing in secondary schools, which has already had great results.

All of these provide progression routes into the Medway Youth Choir for our most experienced singers, who can benefit from working with national organisations like NYCGB and The Sixteen. The choir now meets for various non-residential rehearsals during the year, and performs at a number of high-profile public concerts. And best of all, Medway Youth Choir is free to join!

Visit the Medway Music Association website